Towards an Indigenous Church

(Part Two)

Many are the problems facing the Christian church in her missionary vocation. None of these is more pressing or more complex in our day than that which has generally been denominated for want of more specific terminology the “indigenous method.” Some of the facets or this problem of first magnitude were considered in a recent article; now we would pursue the investigation a little further to inquire into certain difficulties inherent in the critical situation of our times.

Usually we associate the indigenous method and goal with the name of Roland Allen. Yet this may not obscure the fact that this subject has been repeatedly broached in mission history. Attention should be called, for example, to what that greatest of all Reformed canonists, Gijsbertus Voetius, wrote on the subject while professor of theology at the University of Utrecht some three hundred years ago.1 Moreover, as early as 1797 Baptist missionaries in India corresponded vigorously with the Halle-Danish men of the Tranque bar area on the place of the foreign missionary in the indigenous church, his relation to the native ministry, and similar pressing issues. These men were convinced at this early date that India’s millions would have to be reached and evangelized primarily by India’s indigenous Christians.2 The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge two years earlier took the stand,

“If we wish to establish the Gospel in India…we ought to give the Natives a Church of their own, independent of our support: we ought to have suffragan Bishops in the country…even if all connections with their Parent Church should be annihilated.”3

It cannot be denied that all too frequently the bright and hopeful vision of these early days was dimmed later on. But the exigencies of our mid-century years are compelling the churches throughout the world to reemphasize these earlier objectives.



A New Sense of Urgency

Most of us have been eye-witnesses of much mission expansion during the past fifty years. Upon the fairly broad and stable foundations laid by the pioneers of the previous century the churches have been building throughout the world. Into Africa. India, China, many less-well-known countries and the islands of the sea they spearheaded the advance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by sending preachers of the glad tidings. Along with these and even more frequently in their wake the churches commissioned doctors, teachers, nurses and a host of other helpers. Many of them were highly-trained and capable specialists in their fields. By the concerted efforts of these devoted men and women institutions of unique and far-reaching influence were established.

All this !ed to an unmistakable shift in mission strategy and goals. The days of high evangelistic fervor which drove the early pioneers to preach the message of salvation to perishing multitudes in foreign parts seemingly had gone. Not only those who went out but especially many who stayed at home wondered what the church’s mission task really was. At times doubts were publicly expressed as to the propriety and validity of so preaching the claims of Jesus Christ that the hearers were challenged to renounce their former religious convictions and take the drastic step of openly expressing allegiance to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord by receiving baptism. The study of comparative religions, which registered signal advances during this same period, contributed not a little towards weakening the insistence of many as to the uniqueness of the Christian faith. All these disturbing factors were forcing the churches to re-examine the foundations of the mission enterprise.

Today the old liberalism of the twenties and early thirties has lost its grip on the churches. While it left little room for stressing the finality of the Christian faith, the fashion now is to speak of the fundamental verities which for a long season had been either blatantly denied or surreptitiousIy undermined in Protestant pulpits and lecture-rooms throughout Europe and America. Because of the impact of the Second World War on their thought and life Christian men and women everywhere have again become more acutely conscious of the millions living and dying without Christ. As the din of battle subsided somewhat the churches showed a feverish haste about sending out as many missionaries as the strain on denominational purses would allow. Important questions pressed for answer. How had the churches in many parts managed during the absence of foreign leadership and funds? What had become of the educational and medical institutions whose staffs had been so sharply reduced? Had the catastrophes of war and famine and pestilence in pagan lands made the masses any more receptive to the Christian message?

Since then this sense of urgency has been heightened. Events everywhere served to confirm Christian leaders in their conviction that the days for doing mission work with foreign aid are clearly numbered. Does anyone who is conversant with the newspaper headlines still wonder why? These point up with wearisome monotony the tragedies of our times—civil war in Indonesia; political pressures in Burma and Ceylon; rising nationalism throughout Africa; intense anti-Western sentiment in every corner of the Moslem world; riots and bloodshed in India and Pakistan; Communistic expansion in China; open hostilities in Korea. And hanging low in the skies over the whole world is the threatening cloud of the Kremlin to confirm the churches in the conviction that the Gospel must be preached everywhere without delay.

Indeed, some heartening signs could be registered.

Already at the missionary conference held in 1939 at Tambaram, just outside of Madras, the younger churches throughout the world evidenced their growing maturity by assuming responsibility as full partners in this glorious adventure with the older churches.4 Also it seemed that the Christians in China had been purified and strengthened during the dark days of the war.

But the debacle of Communist revolution in that land again served notice on the churches that their time was shorter than they thought. And what shocked leaders most of all was the growing awareness that the younger churches were not nearly so strong as had been first supposed. Thus the chief problem facing all those who take missions seriously is clearly outlined—How can the younger churches best he prepared for the eventuality of the withdrawal of foreign personnel and funds?

The Problem of Definition

Mission conferences also have been changing their emphasis. Instead of discussing ways and means of recruiting, preparing and inspiring missionaries for service, they have directed their attention to basic mission methodology. Last year (July, 1952) such a conference was held at Willingen in Germany which concerned itself greatly with the problems of indigeneity.

Rightly it reminded us of certain facets of the problem which had been too long neglected in those earlier discussions largely determined by the writings of Roland Allen. Willingen was thoroughly convinced of the necessity of indigeneity but wanted the term defined more precisely. The delegates affirmed that although there is much need for emphasizing ‘·the eternal adequacy of the Christian message for the needs of all men everywhere,” they felt constrained to add, “It is no less clear that convincing witness to the grace and power of the Gospel demands local articulation in the language and life of the people.”5 The council wanted to warn against making self·sufficiency and autonomy on the part of the younger churches ends in themselves. Such a view of indigeneity would be too narrow and isolated. Many of these discussions should prove relevant and helpful to our churches which are today grappling with these very issues. The late Dr. J.C. De Korne frequently remarked that there seemed to be general agreement on the indigenous ideal but differences always arose in connection with the methods to be used in achieving the goal. It thus becomes increasingly apparent that the most careful definition of terms is highly desirable if not absolutely essential.

Speaking of the goal of a truly indigenous church Willingen used language quite different from that of the well-known Laymen’s Report of 1932. It described the church as “not being rooted in the soil but related to the soil.”6 Unequivocally the delegates maintained that the church is rooted solely in Christ Jesus. Although we would appreciate a clearer explication of what the delegates meant by this thesis, we cannot but agree that this voice has a much different sound than that of the older modernism. Such relatedness to the soil must never obscure, they affirmed, the basic spiritual foreignness of Christ’s church. Where this would happen, the church ceases to be church and becomes merely some social agency for the welfare of the people. The ever·present threats of relativism and syncretism –two chief foes on the mission field everywhere were signalized. Nor may the indigenous ideal give birth to “superficial compromise or adaptation,” since “Christ’s Lordship is a unique Lordship.”

Willingen did not hesitate to affirm that the true church is ever critical of all national cultures. Today this voice is relevant not only for Europe where the false gods of Fascism, Nazism and Communism have been ardently adored for more than a generation, but especially in America where the government still wears a Christian cloak of a sort.

In this way the church on the mission field, just as the church back home, will experience more deeply and painfully the tension of living between the times. On the one hand she must become articulate in the frame of reference provided by the culture in which Divine providence has been pleased to place her; on the other hand she may never for the sake of her very existence forget her heavenly life and destiny. She must speak plainly and intelligibly to the multitudes around her, a precarious and painful task in any land where the contacts between Christ and the prevailing culture seem so tenuous. No mere mouthing of ancient liturgies or creedal statements—no matter how Scripturally sound and elegant—can satisfy as the answer of the demand for a living preaching of the Word. The missionary must make his message as fully meaningful to his hearers as possible. And yet this gospel may he none other than the full and faithful reduplication of the Word of the Lord which liveth and abideth forever. The church must address herself sympathetically and heroically to the problems of the community and culture in which she resides as a testimony to the loving and patient sovereignty of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ over all of life, yet she may never fail in her duty to denounce all that which is contrary to his revealed will.

Only then will she be truly an indigenous church, becoming as completely as possible part of the cultural pattern and yet always maintaining her spiritual distinctiveness as salt and light and leaven by proclaiming the message which is not hers but his who sent her.

Missions and the New Nationalism

To be able to do all this as effectively as possible it would seem essential that the apron-strings which so long have tied the younger churches to those in Europe and America be cut with dispatch.

As Christian work in many lands expands from year to year and decade after decade, the antipathy to the church precisely on the score of her foreign attachments becomes increasingly vocal. This cannot be countered, as many simple souls propose, by repeating ad naseam. that the true church is supra-national and therefore ought not be associated by anyone with foreign interests and claims. Of most Protestant churches this would seem quite true theoretically. But though the economic and social and political affiliations are tenuous and obscure, it would be fatal to deny their presence. Whether we are willing to make the admission or not, missionaries do not forsake their interest in or love for such lands as Canada, Sweden, The Netherlands or the United States simply by sailing across the seas and taking up residence in foreign parts. Nor may they be expected to adjust completely to their new life at once. Many of the comparisons which they make (often without even being aware of the process) quite naturally reflect unfavorably all. the land which has become their new home. To be able to enter with perfect understanding and sympathy into the full-blown life of a foreign land requires fa r more resources than are available to any man.

This adjustment is not accomplished by some facile change in mode of dress or life. Too glibly this is suggested by people in the homeland who wonder why the missionaries don’t try harder to “go native.” Some few have tried and today are trying this very thing in India. They dress in Indian fashion, eat only Indian food, follow Indian customs and habits as conscientiously and consistently as they can. But the tragedy lies in the undeniable fact that nearly always these missionaries only succeed in making themselves quite ridiculous in the eyes of the people whom they want to serve.

Throughout much of our world we are witnessing’ the unmistakable resurgence of nationalism. At long last India has gained her independence and is making a valiant attempt at developing a democratic pattern of life. Pakistan, Burma, and Indonesia are likewise tasting for the first time in several generations the heady wine of liberty. And since in all these lands Christianity has always been traditionally associated with the overlords, many are not ready to believe that true believers can be loyal and devoted citizens of these new countries. Hand in hand with the new freedom has frequently gone a revival of the old religions. Thus throughout India there are evidences or a powerful revival of Hinduism which in many quarters is making an open bid for the loyalty of the scheduled or depressed classes among whom the Christian gospel registered some of its most spectacular advances.

The only adequate solution—the proper goal of all Christian missions in the light of biblical teaching must be the emergence and development of a strong native church as soon as possible. The first converts will have to be the chief witnesses to their people. To make of Christian missions anything else than the spearhead of the gospel-march will inevitably lead to a type of spiritual subordination and exploitation of the younger churches which is plainly contradictory to the methods allowed in the New Testament. To make these churches mere appendages to or outposts of the churches back home may fit in admirably with the Roman Catholic conception of one visible organization under one visible head. But surely no one who understands the teaching of the Bible on the score of missions will care to defend such a theory.

Only when missionaries are capable of being transferred rather easily and when missions are not saddled too much with lands and homes and institutions and thus bogged down permanently in only a few places will the churches be in any way able to meet the demand of the Risen Savior, “Go ye into all the world, and pre:,ch the gospel to every creature…

Besides some of these basic issues which must he faced there are many problems of a more practical kind. Often these are listed as objections to the indigenous method. In the next article we trust there will be some opportunity to assess their weight. But what should he clear now is that mere repetition of the phrase “indigenous method” shapes no basic policy for the work and solves no major problem on the field. The total question of the church’s missionary calling in these strategic times and really the church has none other calling than this!—requires that thorough comprehension and precise formulation which only a theology steeped in biblical revelation can give.

As Reformed churches we claim to possess by divine grace the clearest and best expression of biblical truth. It would therefore not be amiss to ask whether as churches we really have a mission theology which can shine like a bright beacon in these disastrously dark days when light is so sorely needed. Only then can our deeds match our words, when in all humility and patience and prayer. We lay this crucial question at the feet of God our Sender and say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.”

1. cf. H.A. Van Andel: De Zendingsleer var Gijsbertus Voetius (Kampen, 1912), esp. pp. 141ff.

2. Periodical Acc’ts of the Baptist Missionary Soceity , vol. 111, pp. 329–331.

3. S.P.C.K. Annual Reports 1791. p. 110; quoted in International Review of Missions, vol. XXXVIII, p. 191.

4. The Madras Series. esp. vols. II and IV.

5. International Missionary Council: The Missionary Obligation of the Church p. 8.

6. Ibid. p. 9.